In defence of Ashley Cole

Friday, 22 February, 2019 - 07:30
London - Sean Cole

Ashley Cole played for Derby County in the Championship last weekend, his first appearance in English football for almost five years. The 38-year-old, who has felt curiously rootless and unloved throughout his career, says this will be his final stop before retirement. Of the much-vaunted, and subsequently derided, golden generation, Cole was arguably the only one to live up to his billing. For several years at Arsenal and Chelsea he made a compelling case for being the world’s best left-back. While Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney were all overhyped at times, Cole was under-appreciated.

There are several reasons why this might be the case, but there are clear parallels between him and Raheem Sterling. Both are outstanding black footballers, raised in London, who were branded greedy and irresponsible from a young age. Neither would claim to be entirely blameless, but the negative attention they have received from sections of the press has been wildly disproportionate.

Like Sterling, Cole made the decision to leave an establishment club for one of the nouveau riche, inspiring the view that he cared more about money than status and prestige. Regardless of the fact that their decisions were vindicated many times over by the number of trophies they went on to win, that perception has proved impossible to erase.

Whereas Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney retained loyal support even during difficult times, Cole never received that same backing. Having played for Arsenal since he was nine years old, all of his ties with the club were cut after his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006 – something he says still “hurts” him – and, while supporters at Stamford Bridge respected his ability, they never fully embraced him as one of their own. Many neutrals treated him with indifference at best and active hostility at worst.

Cole was always deemed somewhat aloof and unsympathetic. He was branded a mercenary after ill-judged comments in his autobiography about “trembling with rage” at a £55,000-a-week contract offer. He now admits he was “young, naive, stupid and a little bit stubborn at the time,” but the nickname “Cashley” stuck and shaped perceptions of somebody who just wanted to be paid the going rate for his exceptional skills.

He was the epitome of a modern attacking full-back, as comfortable going forward as he was in defence. Quick, tireless and tenacious with excellent technique, Cole helped to redefine a role that went from being an undervalued afterthought to a key tactical battleground. He was outstanding under a succession of managers yet never received the credit he deserves.

Off the pitch, it’s fair to say that Cole has had a chequered past. From being caught driving more than twice the speed limit to inadvertently shooting a work experience student with an air rifle, he has made a number of remarkably poor judgements. Nobody would claim his behaviour has been perfect but other England stars, such as Lampard and David Beckham, have emerged from their own scandals and controversies relatively unscathed. In contrast, Cole hasn’t been allowed to forget his indiscretions, the stains of which continue to tarnish his reputation.

Racism and media bias have clearly contributed to the negative perceptions that so many have of both Cole and Sterling. The sense that they are reckless, extravagant and uncaring has been deliberately cultivated over a number of years. Although Sterling has finally spoken out, the usual suspects are determined not to listen. As for Cole, he remains unfairly marginalised and forgotten about compared to England teammates who achieved much less. He was never going to be the golden boy with Michael Owen, Beckham and Rooney also on the scene but there was no cause for him to become such an outsider instead.

Awards and professional recognition were never in short supply, as Cole won more than 100 England caps, three Premier League titles, a record seven FA Cups, the Europa League and the Champions League, but he has always been treated with an odd disdain by the football-supporting public at large. At most he has only ever been grudgingly respected.

As he nears the end of his playing days, a reappraisal is in order. Maybe now, at a suitable distance from his previous misdemeanours and in the twilight of an incredibly successful career, Cole will be given the wider acceptance his achievements have long been denied. If Sterling’s comments help pave the way for that, then all the better.

The Guardian Sport

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